China Power

Taiwan’s Coast Guard Under Fire After Chinese National Rides a Speedboat to New Taipei

Recent Features

China Power | Security | East Asia

Taiwan’s Coast Guard Under Fire After Chinese National Rides a Speedboat to New Taipei

A former PLAN officer, surnamed Ruan, reportedly wanted to defect to Taiwan, but the incident has raised concerns about Taiwan’s coastal defense.

Taiwan’s Coast Guard Under Fire After Chinese National Rides a Speedboat to New Taipei

The Tamsui River near Taipei, Taiwan.

Credit: Depositphotos

In an unusual incident, a 60-year-old Chinese national surnamed Ruan was taken into custody in Taiwan earlier this month after claiming that he hoped to defect. Although a number of such incidents take place in Taiwan each year, what made this case unique was that Ruan made it as far as a ferry terminal in Tamsui in New Taipei – in a speedboat. 

It would be highly unusual for anyone traveling from China to make it to Tamsui, on Taiwan’s mainland, rather than outlying islands of Taiwan close to China’s coast, such as Kinmen or Matsu. As such, some questions have been raised about Ruan’s story, with some suggesting that the speedboat Ruan used to travel to Taiwan was actually released by a larger vessel. If Ruan had, in fact, traveled to Taiwan by speedboat from the Chinese coast, this would have meant that he would have had to travel over 200 kilometers.  

For his part, Ruan claims to have been forced to flee to Taiwan after making comments critical of the Chinese government. However, raising further questions, Ruan is a retired People’s Liberation Army Navy captain. For its part, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has denied that Ruan was acting on its orders, stating that he is to be punished after returning to China. 

Experts have suggested that the incident could perhaps be meant to probe Taiwan’s defenses or be a form of gray-zone tactic. The Tamsui River estuary would be crucial to Taiwan’s defense in the event of war. 

Ruan’s vessel was tracked by Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) but was not interdicted because it was mistaken for a Taiwanese fishing vessel returning to harbor. It was only after the speedboat collided with other vessels at a ferry port in Tamsui that authorities took Ruan into custody. Thirty minutes passed before the order was given to intercept Ruan’s vessel, which has been criticized as a failure on the part of the CGA. Ten Coast Guard officers have been disciplined over the incident, receiving demerits or reprimands.  

Radar operators were reportedly monitoring 30 to 57 vessels at the same time as Ruan’s speedboat, which led to difficulties identifying the vessel. Taiwan has the technological capacity to monitor intrusions by foreign vessels, but human error led to an oversight in this case, revealing weaknesses in harbor management in Taiwan.

Minister of National Defense Wellington Koo has stated that he has met with the Coast Guard officials to understand how the incident took place. Ruan’s journey could have potentially been a probe into Taiwan’s defenses, such as with regard to coordination between the CGA and the military. 

In response to the incident, the Taiwanese government stated that 18 cases of purported Chinese defectors occurred last year. Half of the cases were detected by authorities, while the other half were found due to information from the public. In the past 10 years, 119 Chinese nationals have sought to enter Taiwan illegally. 

Military defections have been rare since the Cold War. Defections of PLA pilots, in particular, were heavily leveraged on by the KMT government during the Cold War for propaganda purposes. 

That being said, domestic civil society groups have long criticized Taiwan’s lack of asylum laws, or any standardized asylum procedure for vetting individuals who claim to be fleeing political persecution, Chinese or otherwise. Civil society groups have argued that having a standardized process would bring Taiwan in line with international human rights standards and allow for greater transparency into what is often an opaque process, as well as allow for more robust standards for verifying the claims of those seeking asylum. 

One of the most widely reported cases in the past decade involved two Chinese asylum seekers remaining in the Taoyuan International Airport for over 100 days in 2018 and 2019, with Taiwanese authorities not deporting them but refusing to allow them to enter. This occurred despite the fact that the two men, Yan Kefen and Liu Xinglian, both had documented histories of human rights activism in China and had previously fled to Thailand, holding refugee certificates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It was only after international reporting on their plight that the two men were allowed to enter Taiwan, to eventually be resettled elsewhere. 

There have been other cases, however, in which Chinese nationals who claimed to be dissidents needing to flee political persecution were not allowed into Taiwan and subsequently returned to China. There have, too, been instances in which Hong Kong activists have been denied travel to Taiwan as asylum seekers, leading to their later arrest.  

Still, these were cases of individuals fleeing political persecution, rather than claiming that they hoped to defect.

The incident involving the speedboat took place alongside contention regarding Taiwan’s outlying islands and the actions of the Taiwanese Coast Guard. After a Chinese speedboat intruded in Kinmen’s territorial waters in mid-February, a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel gave chase after the speedboat refused to submit to a search. The Chinese speedboat collided with a Coast Guard vessel after attempting to flee in a zig-zag pattern. Two of the four men on the speedboat were found without vital signs when they were recovered from the water. 

The Chinese government subsequently used the incident as pretext to escalate gray zone activity around Kinmen, announcing that it would increase patrols. A Taiwanese civilian ferry later faced was searched by the China Coast Guard. 

Some questions at the time were raised as to whether the four men on the speedboat were, in fact, fishermen as they claimed. Nevertheless, the Taiwanese Coast Guard faced criticisms for not immediately disclosing that the two Chinese men had died after a collision, leading to calls for greater transparency in the future – including ordering that body cams be used in future incidents, so as to avoid ceding the narrative to China in a way that might allow it to frame Taiwan as the aggressor. Likewise, in the aftermath of the incident, the Taiwanese military stated that it would not increase patrols as a response, probably with the aim of avoiding escalation by emphasizing a strict divide between military and Coast Guard activity.

Some cooperation between Taiwanese and Chinese coast guard authorities took place afterward in searching for missing sailors from capsized vessels. A subsequent incident in March involved two Taiwanese fishers being rescued by the China Coast Guard after their boat went adrift. One of the two rescued men was returned to Taiwan, but the other, who was an active duty officer of the Kinmen Garrison, is still being held in China. The 25-year-old non-commissioned officer, surnamed Hu, was discharged from the military last month in the hopes that this would facilitate his quicker return. 

More broadly, the Tamsui speedboat incident came in the wake of Chinese naval exercises following the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te, as a means of military signaling to Taiwan and the United States. It is still unclear as to how the incident potentially fits into a larger pattern of Chinese efforts to military intimidate Taiwan, or probe weak points in Taiwan’s defenses.